The Design of “Design”

The turn comes for Robert Frost in the last stanza of “Design”, where he exchanges declarative sentences for questions – appropriately, because his piece questions and argues against William Paley’s theory of design. He lays the groundwork for his argument very carefully, selecting for consideration the moment of an insignificant spider seeking its breakfast. However, by coloring the scene with such endearing images as a “paper kite” and “morning” and a “white heal-all,” Frost sets up his readers for an inevitable clash between the beauty of the details and the horror of the impending murder. In this sense, his tone changes with the turn, as he reveals his motive for setting the scene the way he chose (if he had, say, made the moth out to be a villain and the spider as the supreme victor, his poem would not have had the same effect). In the third stanza, Frost switches from contemplating to criticizing. “What brought the kindred spider to that height, /Then steered the white mother thither in the night?” reads like, “Do you mean to tell me you believe God set that spider on that flower to catch that moth and that that’s all part of His great plan?”

Because of the great shift in sentence form coupled with the stanza break and the alteration in rhyme scheme (from ABBA, followed in the first two stanzas, to ABAABB), Frost’s turn is hard to miss. Perhaps, because the poem is designed to be an argument, Frost did not want to dilute his case with subtly or a delicate turn – his is clearly an example of the full 360, of reexamination from a totally different vantage point. While his sentence structure and rhyme scheme is abandoned, he keeps his characters for contemplation: the white heal-all, the spider, and the moth. He holds to them because they resemble a complex puzzle, and by tightening his examination around them after the turn (especially when he has dropped everything else), he makes clear that they are, for him, the key to unfolding the mystery of God’s design, an argument that he is convinced centers on the monotony of the circle of life.  In my own work, I believe it’s important to consider the different kinds of tone and structure shifts that Frost employs to have a more complex understanding of a poem’s subject matter.  His is especially interesting because the piece becomes so complex, intertwining beautiful language (“wings like a paper kite”) with essential questions about the existence of God or such a thing as a good God (dark material indeed).  It is perhaps a sign of a mature poem that can question the goodness of things even as it sees their beauty and necessity, asking unanswerable questions, making a thesis about the workings of the world from one small instance in time.

3 Responses to “The Design of “Design””

  1. superduder Says:

    I agree with where you found the turn to be in this poem. Also, I like how you looked into the rhyme scheme in more detail.

  2. I also really appreciate Frost’s use of contradictory images. I mean, hello! He’s writing about a spider KILLING a moth and then EATING it. While this is the circle of life, and also natural, he uses words (satin/kite/snow drop) that are usually associated with beautiful good things. Yet, this all works with the structure and form and everything else to form a cohesive poem.

  3. karlakelsey Says:

    This is a really wonderful post. One issue it brings up is the catalyst for the turn…why turn at all? And why turn into a particular mode? It is easy to take it on faith that a turn to questioning “works” here:: but why? I think Melissa gives us a great articulation of this: Frost is in critique of a particular theory. This makes his mode of questioning–so analytic and critical–an apt vehicle. I think this is important to keep in mind when we are making turns and when we are evaluating them (here, in workshop, in revision). Is the mode turned to appropriate to the occasion? What is the occasion?

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